Ask LH: What's The Best Tool For Annotating Documents?

Dear Lifehacker, As a researcher, I have to read endless reports and papers (Word and PDF). I don't like to read long reports on the screen, and I also tend to annotate questions/comments as I read, either at work or during a commute (where I don't have a laptop with me). At work with Windows, it is easy to read/comment word documents, and PDF-Xchange viewer does an OK (but not great) job at letting me annotate/comment PDF articles. But both become a pain at home where I have Linux and have to rely on Wine to run Office and so on.

So, is there any tablet out there (or in a near feature) or any eBook device that will allow for commenting/annotating articles with a "stylus" or keyboard? Or any other suggestion to reduce printouts and make the addition of comments and the like a better experience? Cheers, Luis

Dear Luis,

I don't personally claim any particular expertise when it comes to annotation apps for tablets, and many of the annotation apps we've featured in the past are more focused on commenting pictures than text and working with web sites. So as far as that part of the question is concerned, I'll throw it wide open to the readers and ask for any recommendations. Given its current dominance in the space, the iPad might seem an obvious candidate, but its lack of a readily available file system can make it fiddly if you want to work with lots of documents in an offline environment.

If you're not finding PDF-Xchange to your taste, we're big fans around here of Nitro PDF Reader, which also includes annotation capabilities for PDF documents. It's entirely free, it's very slim software, and it's definitely worth a look if you regularly want to work with PDF files.

Cheers Lifehacker


    I have been using Grahl PDF Annotator for years - which is a fantastic tool whether you're using stylus or keyboard on Windows. It's very well updated and I've found their team really receptive to good feedback. There are quite a few tutorials on Youtube.

    Sadly Nitro still doesn't support transparency in PDFs which is a big issue for annotation. I can't even use it to read PDFs I've annotated with other tools.

    Mendeley ( is a great tool for managing pdfs, including online backup and the ability to highlight, add notes, email etc. It can also be used to create bibliographies in MS Word and OpenOffice documents. While collaborative bibliographies are slightly inconvenient, since most people use Endnote, you can export collections of references from Mendeley to Endnote. There is also an iPad app.

    I don't know how you can honestly recommend Nitro PDF. It has major compatibility issues with Adobe (you know, the market leader), making it impossible to actually open Adobe Reader in some cases. It also isn't a good PC "citizen", when it installs it resets all your file associations without requesting it, then when you uninstall it it doesn't set them back, not to mention the web pages it want's to direct you to on install AND uninstall.

      I don't see why you'd need Reader on the machine as well if you're aiming to use an alternative.

        Etrade statements cannot be read by Nitro, or even Foxit. The data seems to be provided in some sort of editable field, but only Adobe Reader can display it.

          Hey Chris,

          I'm not 100% sure, but I'm guessing they might be XFA form-based (LiveCycle) which we're hoping introduce support for in the very near future.

          Unfortunately, it's probably not the type of file you'd be willing to share (confidential financials!) so we'll get in touch with Etrade and find out.

          Thanks for the feedback.

          Nitro Reader Team

        Just because I'm using an alternative to Adobe Reader, doesn't mean everyone is.

        When you're modifying documents to be distributed to others you need to ensure that other people can read that document with the software they use, which is the case of PDF's is usually Adobe Reader.

        The is even more important when the person you are sending the document to is the Managing Director of the company you work at, who simply doesn't have the time, skill, inclination to much around trying to get your PDF working, they will simply say it doesn't work, fix it.

          OK - but your comment suggested issues with running the two side-by-side, not with sharing documents edited in Nitro, which is a different issue. I've not encountered that either, but I rarely share edited PDFs.

      Hi Cameron,

      Thanks for the feedback -- always appreciated, whether it's positive or otherwise! Sorry to hear you had a couple of of issues, but I'll do my best to address the concerns you mention (and apologise in advance for the length of my reply!)

      >It has major compatibility issues with Adobe (you know, the market leader), making it impossible to actually open Adobe Reader in some cases.

      We are 100% compliant with the PDF spec, and therefore (in theory) 100% compatible with Adobe Reader, so all annotations/etc. should display in either application, regardless of the source app. However, the PDF format itself does allow for almost infinite variations on what a file can comprise, and we launched in beta to iron out anything like this. Was the file itself not opening? Elements not displaying? If you're willing to spare the time, we'd love a little more detail so we can take a deeper look.

      > It also isn’t a good PC “citizen”, when it installs it resets all your file associations without requesting it, then when you uninstall it it doesn’t set them back

      There was a bug in an earlier build where default file associations were automatically set to Nitro Reader (definitely not ok -- and certainly not intentional) that has since been resolved. We get just as upset as anyone if something underhanded takes place when installing a piece of software.

      > not to mention the web pages it want’s to direct you to on install AND uninstall.

      Sorry if you found these intrusive -- we kept them devoid of any "marketing" content for this exact reason. The post-install page offers some tips on getting started, and have an uninstall survey to find out what didn't work and what we can improve.

      Hopefully that sheds a little light on things from our end. If you have any questions, I'll be here (nick.chandler [AT]

      We're constantly working on ways to improve Nitro Reader, and always open to feedback -- all in the open over in our community forums ( We're coming out of beta mid-2011 too -- stay tuned.

      Nitro Reader Team

    Have a look at pliny ( It is a cross-platform tool for annotating pdf's and other files, and organising the notes made. It is built on the eclipse ide, and is open source and free. Bit of a learning curve, but quite powerful.

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